SKOWHEGAN — Maybe it was the little things over the past year that brought the Skowhegan Police Department up to a full complement of 15 officers for the first time in more than a decade.

Little things such as getting new uniforms on time or rotating old cruisers out of the fleet. Or safety training on drugs, street gangs and motorcycle gangs in Maine. A new contract with the town, maybe, and hopes for competitive wages and benefits that will stop the bleeding and the quick exit of police officers.

Until about a year ago, police officers were leaving Skowhegan at an alarming rate for all of those reasons.

Sgt. Joel Cummings, with 25-plus years on the job in Skowhegan, said maybe it’s the new police chief, Don Bolduc, who came to town three years ago and took over as chief in September, who made the difference.

“I think the new leadership that he offered was recognized; the new contract was attractive and we actually pulled some people back who had left us,” Cummings, 52, said. “Those things in a combination — he had everyone’s respect and they knew he was going to have their backs. It was a lot of little things.

“He’s a leader by example. We all saw the potential of Don as chief. We as patrolmen were not seeing what we needed from a chief, Chief (Ted) Blais, at that time. I don’t remember the last time we had a full complement.”

Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand said the Police Department budget is designed for 15 full-time police officers and a police chief. The departmental budget approved this month by voters at Town Meeting was $1.34 million, up from $1.28 million the previous year.

“I believe that the Board of Selectmen and the police chief have made changes to improve the Police Department for the officers that have served our community for many years as well as our newer members,” Almand said. “A couple years ago, areas of the budget associated with training were doubled. A good training program is important in order to provide basic as well as specialized training that helps to encourage the officers to advance their skills and knowledge, which provides a better service to the community.”

Almand said selectmen last year approved a contract with significant pay increases. The board also approved a Tuition Student Incentive Program that was presented by then-Chief Blais and is still in place. The program is used to assist with recruitment.

She said Bolduc “has proven to be a respected leader that is engaged in the community.” He is on the Main Street Skowhegan board and is active in the neighborhood watch group meetings, Almand said.

Bolduc also has introduced a naloxone hydrochloride, or Narcan, program to be used by police officers on people with opioid-related drug overdoses and has promised a review of the department’s policy on dealing with the media.

“Chief Bolduc is the type of leader that values the input of his officers,” she said. “I am encouraged by the fact that we are full staff. We have an excellent team with a vibrant energy.”

UNDERSTAFFED, OVERBURDENED

Department woes date back at least to 2007, when a five-week study of law enforcement needs determined that the department was understaffed and overburdened. An advisory group recommended that a town the size of Skowhegan, with a population of about 9,000, should have 15-person police force.

The committee relied on statistics from the department, information from a 1989 study by the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, a review of Uniform Crime Reports data, interviews of department personnel and a 2004 needs study by former chief Butch Asselin, according to a 2007 report in the Morning Sentinel.

The committee was made up of two selectmen, a psychologist, a medical doctor, a pharmacist, a school board member, two budget committee members and a conservationist.

The situation began to hit bottom in February or March 2015, when six police officers and a detective either quit or went to a different agency to work, Cummings said.

“The low point was August or September of last year, when we were down to seven people,” said Bolduc, 51. “I took over Sept. 2.”

Improvement was a combination of reasons, more money being one of the motives for leaving, he said. Another problem during that period, Cummings said, was that “officers that were truly despondent with the leadership at that time.”

Blais, the former public safety director at the University of Maine at Farmington, was police chief in Skowhegan during that time. He had become chief in June 2013, replacing Michael Emmons. Blais abruptly resigned at the end of July 2015.

Bolduc, who had been police chief in Millinocket, was deputy chief at the time. He had been with the department since 2013. In August 2013, he became deputy chief when Dan Summers left to become chief in Lincoln. Bolduc became interim police chief July 27, after Blais left, then officially became chief in August.

LITTLE THINGS

Cummings said improvements in morale also included little things such as solving equipment problems. He said in previous years it took six or eight months to get new uniforms. Now uniforms are delivered in a couple of weeks because Bolduc stayed on it.

Skowhegan police officers are working under a one-year labor contract with the potential of better wages in a new contract, Bolduc said. Starting pay, according to the police union wage scale, is $16.59 per hour for a new officer. In neighboring Fairfield, the base pay for a patrol officer after July 1 will be $18.62. State troopers start off at an annual salary of $38,625, according to the Maine.gov website.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said a new hire in his department who hasn’t been trained at a police academy starts at an hourly pay rate of $16.60. “If I hire a deputy that already has (graduated from) the academy, I usually start them out at $18.09,” Lancaster said. The governor just gave the state police and other Department of Public Safety employees a sufficient pay raise, starting July 1.

Bolduc would not discuss current labor negotiations between the town and the union, but he holds out hope for a contract that satisfies both sides of the bargaining table.

“I never promised anything I couldn’t deliver, but I made them a little more optimistic,” he said. “When I was hired, I said I wanted to put more emphasis with patrol time and follow up on investigations.”

Bolduc said he would forgo having a deputy chief in the interim in order to have a day sergeant, who is now Cummings, and a detective sergeant, Josh King. The town then hired Katelyn Treylino, who soon was promoted to detective. Treylino, daughter of Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, already has attended a police academy in Virginia. Selectmen recently granted Treylino statewide powers of arrest.

There are now three patrol sergeants, a detective sergeant and three detectives, including Kelly Hooper. Hooper is assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, which pays her salary.

A sergeant and a patrolman work the night shift, and a detective or a sergeant and two patrolmen are on the day shift.

BRIGHT HOPES

Bolduc said his emphasis since he took over as chief has been to ensure adequate training for his police officers. And while Skowhegan police salaries remain lower than the competition in central Maine, Bolduc said he is optimistic that wages and benefits soon will be sufficient to maintain a full roster and make officers less likely to leave for greener pastures.

“They’re still in negotiations and continuing to go forward so we can be somewhat competitive,” Bolduc said. “We’re not asking to be the best, but we at least want to be competitive, and we’re not there yet.”

There also is a hospital resource officer hired this year who is paid by Redington-Fairview General Hospital. The officer, Kyle Haseltine, works evenings and overnight at the hospital Thursday through Monday.

Two new officers have completed the basic police course at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and two more are enrolled, one in August and another in January. There also will be supervisor training for the sergeants and detectives.

Bolduc said four undercover detectives from New Haven, Connecticut, came to the Skowhegan Armory last month for a joint training session with area departments on drugs and gangs. Bolduc said drugs and gangs have become a big problem and that it’s a two-way street — drugs come to Maine from New Haven in exchange for guns that are easily obtainable in Maine.

The drugs often are associated with gangs that have filtered into the state, he said.

Bolduc said the Police Department now focuses more on the supply of and demand for its services.

“In some aspects, we run it like a business. We look at what the needs are of the community and what we want to emphasize,” he said. “Right now it’s routine daily patrol focusing on drugs and crime, and of course it all intermingles. We want more boots on the ground, more emphasis on the day-to-day operation.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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